Chapter 20 Summary

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Returning to his former assignment in Harlem, the narrator realized he had been away from the neighborhood long enough that his old territory seemed somehow foreign to him. He stopped at a bar called the Jolly Dollar for a beer, and the bartender greeted him familiarly, but the other patrons seemed suspicious of him and asked why he was calling everybody “Brother.” The bartender defended him to the patrons, telling him there had been some changes at the Brotherhood since he had been gone. In his view, he revealed, the organization had stopped fighting, and things had begun to disintegrate.

Arriving at the district office, the narrator was dismayed to discover that Brother Tarp was no longer with the organization and had taken his Frederick Douglass poster with him. Without any further directive, the narrator started organizing those present into groups to search the streets for Brother Clifton. Eventually, he stumbled on a strategy meeting in progress and realized he had neither been notified of the schedule nor invited to participate.

Heading out to the streets to begin his search, the narrator noticed a street performer making a racist Black paper caricature puppet dance for tips. Focusing first on the grotesque paper puppet as it danced before him, he finally looked up to focus on the performer. He was shocked to realize the puppet was being operated by Brother Tod Clifton, who was in the middle of a spiel that seemed to have been practiced and honed. The narrator was visibly disgusted and upset, but Clifton refused to look at him, seeming to stare directly through him instead. Clifton continued operating the puppet as a crowd looked on, ignoring the narrator and maintaining his facade as people tipped him for his performance. Eventually they made eye contact, and the narrator tried to talk to him, but he was interrupted when a police officer arrived and Clifton attempted to disappear into the crowd.

The police officer pushed Clifton, who attempted to recover his balance before being pushed again, and the two started fighting. As the narrator watched helplessly, the fight escalated. Suddenly, a loud boom sounded, and the narrator realized Clifton had been shot. He attempted to run to his friend, but the cops forced him across the street with the other onlookers. Pronouncing Clifton dead from his injuries, they interrogated the narrator until the ambulance arrived to take him away.

As the narrator stumbled home, dazed, he wondered who would be the one to tell Brother Tod Clifton’s story. The death would be recorded by the police officers, which would constitute the historical record. But they didn’t know him, he mourned, and it was likely that no one person knew Clifton’s story in full.

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Chapter 19 Summary


Chapter 21 Summary